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The Curious Case of a Memory Leak in a Zig program

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    Krut Patel

This is a small exposition on an unexpected "memory leak" I encountered when writing a Zig program. We will mainly focus on a very simple allocation pattern and see how it causes a "leak" (you will see why I am putting it in quotes) when using a particular allocator from Zig's stdlib.


Advent of Code 2022 gave me an excuse to learn the Zig programming language. It is touted to be the C replacement, so I definitely expected to write lots of low-level code involving pointers and manual memory management. But the language is designed around making such code safe and ergonomic. I particularly liked how virtually every allocation requires an explicit memory allocator, and that the Zig standard library ships with many allocator types that we would need for common memory usage patterns.

As a personal challenge, I strived to explicitly limit the amount of memory needed for solving each AoC problem to something that fits on the stack (typically a few MBs at most).

Enter FixedBufferAllocator

The FixedBufferAllocator from Zig's standard library is a perfect fit for my challenge constraint. Here's a refresher:

// from
test "fixed buffer allocator" {
    var buffer: [1000]u8 = undefined;
    var fba = std.heap.FixedBufferAllocator.init(&buffer);

    const allocator = fba.allocator();

    const memory = try allocator.alloc(u8, 100);

    try expect(memory.len == 100);
    try expect(@TypeOf(memory) == []u8);

The allocator is backed by a bytearray of fixed length (1000 bytes in the snippet above) which is allocated on the stack. It keeps allocating memory from the slice until it hits the end, at which point it returns a OutOfMemory error. 1

Enough background, let's dive into the primary reason this post was made.

Day 23

The problem statement of AoC'22 Day 23 is similar to Conway's Game of Life, except with different rules. The details of the problem aren't important — it comes down to simulating an infinite grid of cells in 2D space for a certain number of steps, where each "active" cell interacts with its neighbours in every iteration according to certain rules.

Next I'll be describing some relevant portions of my solution. Pause here if you wish to take a shot at the problem yourself first!

As an implementation detail, an infinite grid means we can't use a traditional 2D array data structure in a very straightforward way. As a starting point, I elected to simply use a hashset to store the (x,y) coordinates of all the cells that are "active" in the grid in the current step. 2

const Point2D = struct {
	x: i32,
	y: i32,

/// type alias to specify HashSet of active cells in 2D space
const CellSet = std.AutoHashMap(Point2D, void); // zig stdlib doesn't have an explicit "HashSet"; we can instead use a hashmap with `void` as its value type

const Grid = struct {
	cells: CellSet,

The data structures are pretty self-explanatory I hope. I chose to wrap cells inside a Grid just in case I needed to store other auxiliary data. Turned out to be unnecessary, but let's continue with this for now.

We need to run the simulation for certain number of iterations, updating the grid each time:

fn main() !void {
	var buffer: [20000]u8 = undefined;
	var fba = std.heap.FixedBufferAllocator.init(&buffer);
	const allocator = fba.allocator();

	// parsing code

	for(0..numSteps) |i| {
	    std.debug.print("Round {}\n", .{ i });
	    try step(grid);
	// print result

The step function

The core part is a repeated call to the step function. It takes the grid state (set of active cells) and basically applies the interaction rules to update the locations of active cells.

fn step(grid: *Grid) !void {
	// initialize the new cell hashset to use the same allocator as old cells
	var new_cells = CellSet.init(grid.cells.allocator);
	// allocate mem
	try new_cells.ensureTotalCapacity(grid.cells.count());

	// populate the new_cells according to game rules

	// replace the old cells set with new_cells
	grid.cells.deinit(); // free old hashset
	grid.cells = new_cells; // set pointer

The key insight here is that the game rules ensure that the number of active cells remains constant throughout. As a side note, Zig lets us take advantage of this with the new_cells.ensureTotalCapacity call. Our algorithm can guarantee that there will be no allocations needed when actually inserting elements into this set, preferring to call CellSet.putAssumeCapacity, and the like 3.

We can go one step further (pun intended :3), and assert that the amount of memory allocated before and after every invocation of step is the same. This is because we make sure that the old hashset is freed before we exit the function. So, we are done... Right?

The Leak

Alas, we get an OutOfMemory error after a few calls to step when running on the provided input (~2500 active cells). My solution started with the FixedBufferAllocator backed by a modest 20KB buffer. At its peak, we need to store 2 hash sets in memory (just before we free the old one at end of step). Maybe the hashsets really take up more than 20KB?

So my first instinct was to increase the buffer size. But this does not work. What's more, increasing it all the way up to a few MBs is still not enough- each time we can make a few more calls to step than before, but eventually it gives OutOfMemory. This really goes against the "no extra memory" assertion we made about step.

There is a memory leak.


[Cut- some hours of head-bashing to figure out just how the old hashtables were being leaked. Why isn't deinit working??]

After coming to the conclusion that the deinit is doing its job just fine and frees the old hashset, I had to look for the leak elsewhere.

I started to use a different allocator for new_cells:

fn step_with_tempalloc(grid: *Grid) !void {
	var temp_buf: [40000]u8 = undefined;
	var temp_fba = std.heap.FixedBufferAllocator.init(&temp_buf);
    const temp_alloc = temp_fba.allocator();

	// initialize the new cell hashset to use the temp_alloc
	var new_cells = CellSet.init(temp_alloc);
	// allocate mem
	try new_cells.ensureTotalCapacity(grid.cells.count());

	// populate the new_cells according to game rules, same as before

	// can't do this anymore
	// grid.cells.deinit(); // free old hashset
	// grid.cells = new_cells; // set pointer

	// helper func can assume that no allocations will be needed
	copyHashTable(new_cells, &grid.cells);
	// temp_buf is out of scope, new_cells is invalidated. no need to free it manually

Now, we allocate new_cells in a temporary allocator for every iteration, and copy it over to grid.cells at the end. Implementation detail- Now we cannot simply "swap pointers" and set the grid.cells field as we did before, since new_cells will be invalidated once the function exits. We need to manually copy over all the entries from new_cells into grid.cells.

It worked!! We could stop now, but this solution feels suboptimal. Can't we avoid the hash table copy somehow? Let's try to debug our old code.

One thing we can do is ask the fba how much memory it has allocated4-

	copyHashTable(new_cells, &grid.cells);

    std.debug.print("new_cells memuse: {}\n", .{temp_fba.end_index});

This always printed the same number (36888 in my case) across different runs of step, meaning the new_cells hashset is always the same size. This further supports our assertion that total memory is constant across step calls. Then why did the original step leak?!!

Wait a minute...



end_index is an interesting name for a variable... Why not call it allocated_bytes, or something?



After reading the source code of FixedBufferAllocator, it becomes clear why the step function leaked. Let us dig in.

The allocator state consists of only two fields-

pub const FixedBufferAllocator = struct {
    end_index: usize,
    buffer: []u8,


The buffer is the backing slice of bytes (made of a u8 pointer and usize length), and end_index is the last byte that has been allocated till now.

To realize how unsophisticated this is, here is the implementation of free-

fn free(
    ctx: *anyopaque,
    buf: []u8,
    log2_buf_align: u8,
    return_address: usize,
) void {
    const self = @ptrCast(*FixedBufferAllocator, @alignCast(@alignOf(FixedBufferAllocator), ctx));
    _ = log2_buf_align;
    _ = return_address;
    assert(self.ownsSlice(buf)); // sanity check

    if (self.isLastAllocation(buf)) {
        self.end_index -= buf.len;

pub fn isLastAllocation(self: *FixedBufferAllocator, buf: []u8) bool {
    return buf.ptr + buf.len == self.buffer.ptr + self.end_index;

Don't worry about all the extra cruft. The core part is in these lines-

if (self.isLastAllocation(buf)) {
    self.end_index -= buf.len;


The end_index is only decremented if the memory to be freed is at the end of the allocated region. Put another way, the allocator behaves like a stack. You can only free the most recently allocated slice first. Otherwise free is a no-op.

To verify, let's take one step back (sorry, I just couldn't help myself :3), and print the "memory usage" for our original version of step-

// in main loop
for(0..numSteps) |i| {
    std.debug.print("Round {} memuse: {}\n", .{ i, fba.end_index });
    try step(grid);


Round 0 memuse: 41864
Round 1 memuse: 78752
Round 2 memuse: 115640
Round 3 memuse: 152528
Round 4 memuse: 189416
Round 5 memuse: 226304
Round 6 memuse: 263192
Round 7 memuse: 300080
Round 8 memuse: 336968
Round 9 memuse: 373856

Yep, after each round the end_index is incremented by 36888 (=78752-41864), which is exactly the size of new_cells we got from step_with_tempalloc 5.


I hope you are beginning to see why our implementation of step was flawed. Here's some ASCII art to visualize the allocation pattern6-

 start: [gridcells...................................]
 alloc: [gridcells|new_cells.........................]
 swap : [..........gridcells.........................]
 start: [..........gridcells.........................]
 alloc: [..........gridcells|new_cells...............]
         ^new_cells should ideally have come here
 swap : [....................gridcells...............]
 start: [....................gridcells...............]
 alloc: [....................gridcells|new_cells.....]
 swap : [..............................gridcells.....]
... so on, until we hit end of buffer

(The chunks of . represent uninitialized/unused memory in the buffer.)

Since we always allocated new_cells before freeing grid.cells, the new hashset was always placed after the old one in the backing buffer. The calls to grid.cells.deinit() were thus hitting the no-op case of free since grid.cells was not the last allocation in that buffer.

There you have it... FixedBufferAllocator is implemented as a Bump pointer allocator.


There are many ways to fix the memory leak. I will only outline some of the most obvious solutions here-

  1. Keep the step_with_tempalloc implementation. It is totally fine to do some extra copies, as it is only a constant overhead.
  2. To use the original version of step (no extra copies), we could switch to a more sophisticated allocator (like std.heap.page_allocator) that is capable of releasing memory from anywhere, not just the end.
  3. If you are hell-bent on using FixedBufferAllocator only and you want to avoid copies, there is a way. Using two buffers (and separate allocators backed by them), it is possible to keep swapping between them after every iteration. Try drawing the visual diagram to see why it would work!

Closing thoughts

  • Now you can appreciate why I put "leak" in quotes at the very beginning. Since we are using a FixedBufferAllocator, we can't call this a "leak" in a traditional sense; there is no memory being "lost" during execution. When the underlying buffer is freed, we do end up releasing all the memory we acquired. More appropriate to call it a Space Leak.
  • Both CellSet.deinit and were doing the right thing in isolation. The bug was in my particular usage of the memory allocator. And this leads us to-
  • Zig's FixedBufferAllocator, as it is currently implemented, is meant to be used like a stack (Last In, First Out). Deviate from this at your own peril.

I am sure I have been abusing FixedBufferAllocator to make it do much more than intended (which probably involved keeping it in a single function scope, useful for simple allocs). But hey, I had a lot of fun pushing the boundaries and discovering how it broke. I hope this was useful for you too!


  1. Upon hitting the OutOfMemory, I would do one (or more) of three things-

    1. Easy: increase the buffer size until the error disappears. This works upto a point, but is obviously bound by the stack limits set on the system (8MB by default on most linux systems; you can check using ulimit -s)
    2. Difficult: come up with a better algorithm that doesn't need so much memory.
    3. Cop-out: If I was feeling particularly lazy, or if the solution genuinely needed lots of memory (as in some memoized algos), I would simply shift from FixedBufferAllocator to the std.heap.page_allocator. As the name suggests, it is essentially the generic OS allocator that is backed by pages (typically 4KB each) in the heap, allowing me to utilize all the available RAM on my system.
  2. We could use the 2D-array solution by performing dynamic re-sizing when a cell crosses the allocated boundaries, but that would be too much effort for now. Might switch to it if the naive hashset solution starts causing issues with performance (random hash lookups vs adjacent cell accesses). Or, if we were really following Conway's Game of Life rules, we could go all-out and implement something like Hashlife.

  3. TigerBeetle takes this to a whole another level; see A Database Without Dynamic Memory Allocation for more.

  4. Big thanks to zls for making it possible to enumerate all the fields of a struct. Without it, I would have had a much harder time tracking down this leak.

  5. For those wondering why it is 41864 and not 36888 for the very first iteration, that's because the extra space is taken up by the problem's raw input data itself. It is loaded from disk and then parsed into the CellSet initially, after which it is never used again.

    fn main() !void {
    	// call helper function that reads the data file to a []const u8 allocated using `allocator`
    	const input = try readInput(allocator, "day23.txt");
    	var grid = try Grid.parse(allocator, input);

    One could get greedy and call as soon as the Grid has been populated. I leave it to you to figure out why this would not work as expected, and why we would still see 41864 being printed.

  6. Of course, a hashset needs to store some metadata too. I am omitting all this from the diagram for the sake of simplicity.